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MISSOULA, Mont. – Opioid overdoses, the No. 1 killer of Americans ages 18 to 45, aren’t slowing down, and police say there’s a rise of a more dangerous substance — fentanyl.
In Montana, state law enforcement officials say drug cartels are specifically targeting more rural areas.
Montana Highway Patrol troopers have already seized three times as many fentanyl pills on the streets this year compared to 2021. Fentanyl is typically used to treat patients with severe pain. But people are using it to get high, and doing so is often a death sentence.
Marla Ollinger’s son moved to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“My son was great. He was a good friend. He was a great brother,” Ollinger said.
But, by January 2022, something had changed.
“I was noticing his lack of attention. He was withdrawn,” Ollinger said.
Ollinger said he started to resist going to family functions, and she began to get worried.
“Something told me I was never going to see my son again,” Ollinger said.
Ollinger was right. Her 33-year-old son, Justin Lee Littledog, died March 7 of a fentanyl overdose. She says his autopsy’s toxicology report showed there was 15.5 mg of the drug in his system. The estimated lethal dose of fentanyl in humans is 2 mg.
“I feel that I have lost a huge, big part of me, and I fight for that daily when I wake up in the morning and I go to bed at night. I lost my child. He made me a mother,” Ollinger said.
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She’s now on a mission to destigmatize addiction and encourage people to get help.
Blackfeet Nation declared a state of emergency in March after there were 17 opioid overdoses and four deaths on the reservation in a week.
But fentanyl is not just a reservation issue, it’s a statewide issue.
“Since 2020, our crime lab confirmed fentanyl deaths increased 1,100%,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said.
Knudsen says Mexican drug cartels crossing the southern border are targeting Montana.
“We do have specific cartel intelligence that they’re targeting Montana because they know they can make tremendous profit here selling a product that costs them next to nothing to make,” Knudson said.
He says a blue M30 tablet would sell for $10 to $15 dollars in Phoenix, Denver or Salt Lake City. In Montana, the cost is up to around $100 since the state is farther from the border and there is less access to illicit drugs.
“You have to understand that the cartels in Mexico can produce these fentanyl tablets for pennies on the dollar,” Knudsen said. “There’s a huge profit motive for the cartels.”
A few years ago, Knudsen said, a dozen fentanyl pills represented a huge police bust. But now officers are routinely finding criminals traveling with up to 10,000 tablets. He says that’s enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in the state.
Dr. Robert Sherrick is the chief medical officer for Community Medical Services, which operates 50 opioid treatment centers nationwide, including four in Montana. He said fentanyl has taken over.
“I would say somewhere around 70% of our patients who come in with an opioid-use disorder … are testing positive for fentanyl,” Sherrick said.
Sherrick said the biggest barrier for treatment is the drug’s stigma.
“If someone has a serious addiction to (an) opioid, whether it’s fentanyl or any other opioid, they really need to get into treatment. They need to get on medication,” Sherrick said.
He said addicts need to get into opioid treatment programs to receive medicine to help wean them off drugs. He contends patients are not trading one addiction for another when they take medicine that treats opioid addiction. Sherrick says fentanyl is so addictive it has a lower rate of successful rehab compared to other opioids.
Those closest to addiction are hopeful addicts can get help and change their lives.
Blackfeet Indian Reservation resident Christie Farmer served time in prison for selling drugs after she became addicted to methamphetamine. Now that she has recovered, she serves as an advocate for addiction treatment in her community. She’s also related to Ollinger, who lost her son to fentanyl in March.
“I felt guilty when my cousin Marla’s son passed away,” Farmer said. “Because, I thought, here I am, you know, talking about the Narcan and the harm reduction. Could I have helped?”
Farmer said there was a push to raise awareness about the harms of opioid use before the pandemic, but COVID-19 shut down those efforts. There are treatment centers available, but sometimes the wait for one is lengthy, the centers are far away or there is not enough staff.
“I hope that we can get more resources and services so that our people are able to — if they wake up one day, they say, ‘I want to get some help,’ that they could just be able to go to one of these places and get an assessment and get the help that they need right away,” Farmer said.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services offers resources to get help for addiction treatment.